A response to “What natural theology does for personal piety”

This article is a response to Bonald’s article “What natural theology does for personal piety”

 

While I will most likely not address Bonald’s points in the order he put them, and not even all of them, I have a few things to say on this topic, one that I find most interesting:

1. Bonald’s article is a clearly Catholic response to Charlton’s ideas.

“Roman Catholicism teaches that human reason can prove that God is; and, even infer that He is eternal, infinite, good, bodiless, almighty, all-knowing, etc…Orthodoxy teaches that the knowledge of God is planted in human nature and that is how we know Him to exist. Otherwise, unless God speaks to us, human reason cannot know more.” — The Orthodox Christian Page

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also says “Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator”.
While I will address this in points 3 and 5, I will say that I think that God does not force his presence on our empirical and rational faculties, because he wants us to love him freely, not out of a mercenary spirit (of which I don’t necessarily accuse Western Christians). Not only this, but the mystics have even written about a spiritual drought, in which God ceases to reveal His presence to the Christian’s noetic faculties, so that the Christian may learn to love him purely and with faith and not because of reassurance in His existence. Even Mother Theresa has spoken about such a spiritual desert.

2. There was a period where I was interested in all the debates and rational arguments about the existence of God. I no longer am satisfied with them, and in fact feel no desire to listen to them at all. One of the New Atheists complained that theists no longer advance new arguments, and I think that this is right – for both sides.
In fact, these debates shook my faith. I had no satisfaction from neither the theist nor the atheist side of cosmological, ontological and free will problems. I think that whatever position you have already taken, these things would make sense both ways – and there is no way to persuade the other side. An unmoved mover is simply not a necessity if the universe is eternal, there are plenty of ways to explain patterns other than design, and free will can just as well be an illusion. The case of the resurrection I find stronger, but insufficient since it reposes on the historical method which is epistemologically materialistic.
I think the two best arguments are that (1) religion is simply natural to mankind – that all of humanity throughout history and even prehistory has believed in a transcendent reality; the other good argument is (2) the argument from experience, where I think it is bias to assume that what an Athonite monk experiences during his incessant prayer is just an illusion – my relations with the world around me can just as well be an illusion, but it is a necessity to take the leap of faith in the name of practical reason, and you have to take the leap for both cases or for none.

3. Thus I think that reason is incapable of decisively proving or disproving God. I believe the theist arguments, but they cannot lead other to the faith. This is why I find existentialism very important (and very Eastern Orthodox). I think that ultimately, even if we have “our little reasons” to believe, the question of the leap of faith is that of deciding to love God and to trust him, in other words to take the wager. I think that it comes naturally to man to find out about God – that’s why babies are not atheists.
So I think that we should become people of faith and reason, and that man’s essential condition does not only make him a rational being, but also an existential being; and that man existential condition requires not only faith, but protection from arbitrariness and insanity by reason. Thus, I reject both Aristotelian rationalism and fideism, and the false dichotomy of justifying faith with either faith itself or reason.
(Speaking of existentialism, I may as well note that the Orthodox view of the fall is not that of an ontological change, but of an existential change. Thus, we do not speak of a “fallen nature” but of “fallen men” and a “fallen condition”. Our fall was a leap of faith into egotism, disobedience and self-centredness, and only through divine grace can we cross back the bridge to our natural condition of loving and serving God.)

4. Charlton seems open to many doctrines, it seems to me. I cannot, of course, do anything but feel happy that he is interested in theosis and other Orthodox doctrines. I think that in the case of the problem of evil, there is simply no answer, regarding it from the human condition. That is, the answer “only God knows” is not an acceptable answer, it is a non-answer, even if I hold that this one is precisely true. “Were you there when I created the world?” Exactly.
I think that in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky very well shows that we are not to react to this problem of evil as a deist, but as an active Christian – with patience, silence and love of neighbour. It’s not rational, but being a Saint is far more important than to advance in natural theology; that is, it is better to experience revelation itself and make others (by my example and love) experience the divine love revealed to me, than to study revealed or natural theology.

5. I think that there are two problems with the problem of evil according to what I have read and thought about:
(1) I think that if we have true free will, then we share some sovereignty and responsibility with God. That is, if we are to throw at him “why did you let this happen?” when someone suffers, the Lord is just as much justified to respond “why did you let this happen?” We are sovereign to get a stone and hit our neighbour, and God will do nothing, for he otherwise doesn’t let us freely learn His ways of love. Free will is, as C. S. Lewis said it very simply, freedom to do good but also freedom to do evil.
There is no systematic way by which we can know, of course, when God helps us and when it is we that are doing things, but I think that this is the point of the doctrine of synergism. Paul’s conversion is a clear example of Providence, while Abraham’s leap of faith when he is ready to kill his son is a clear example of human activity. (Nevertheless, even these two cases are synergistic, that is – in both man freely cooperates with the indispensable divine grace that saves.)
(2) I also think that there are two options to choose on the question which one comes first: God’s all-lovingness or God’s all-sovereignty? In the sense, will God make Himself incapable of doing some things so that man, in His image and likeness, can be both free and good – free in the sense of being exempt from any process of predestination, while God remaining as sovereign as sovereignty is in a world where his creation now free? Or will God remain just as sovereign as before creation – and thus predestining man to only feel free, to sin, and to deserve hell according to God’s standards of justice? I believe the first, and find the second unbelievable, and also irreconcilable with the first. Even if true, my human condition cannot permit me to love a God Who has decided that I will sin, and that according to His will I (or any other person) will suffer forever.

6. To go back to Mr. Charlton. Manwe, in the comment section,  talks about de-hellenization, and I think that he is right to be sceptical about it. Christianity is a living culture, not something that, once lost, can be restored by scholars (that is partly why I cannot be a Protestant). This is why I think that one must remain loyal to what already exists, and not “restore”.
(One reason why Catholicism and Anglicanism (and to a lesser extent Lutheranism) are my favourite Western faiths is because of their spirit of apostolic succession and of reforming only this which can be traced back as a recent and inorganic change, not “restoration”.)
On the other hand, I am an Orthodox exclusivist of a sort. I feel very uncomfortable with some versions of Western theology. I believe that Eastern Orthodoxy is, more than any other faith or philosophy, the remedy most satisfying for the human condition. So, things like the New Perspective on Paul, even if they are in the scholarly “restoration” spirit, are closer to historical Christianity than what they try to correct. There is a lot of good and true in the theology of N. T. Wright, for example. Wright has written works on theology that hasn’t been seen too often in the West, at least for a long while.

7. I hope nobody will take my exclusiveness as a desire to proselytize – I hate proselytism. We must evangelize not by stealing our flocks or even by talking to people for the sake of making them come to our churches, but by Christ-like love and guidance by the Holy Spirit.

 

I would be more than glad to read your comments (even of this kind) on my article!

2 thoughts on “A response to “What natural theology does for personal piety”

  1. Hello,

    Since you’ve been kind enough to right a response to my article, it seems appropriate for me to comment on your reply. I’ve taken a long time to do so because I’m not quite sure what to say. We seem to be arguing over different issues. You are expressing skepticism about whether natural theology can lead an unbeliever to God. I would agree that this rarely happens. Even though reason can establish the existence of God, it may well be that no current argument overcomes every reasonable criticism, and even if one does, it would not follow that it would be psychologically compelling to those who hear it. I’ve heard versions of the ontological argument, for example, where no logical error was immediately apparent to me, but my first reaction was “That just can’t be right!” Someone in that mindset might never find the error in a line of reasoning while remaining convinced that it must be there somewhere.

    On the other hand, my main point was that philosophical theism has a positive effect on those who already believe in God, at least those of an inquisitive and argumentative bent. It keeps them from thinking of God as just another being, if a particularly exalted one. Once one starts imagining God “in” rather than “above” the world, a number of spiritually dangerous lines of thought stand open.

    In a future post, I hope you will explain how you reconcile your rejection of predestination with Saint Paul’s seeming affirmation of it. I say this not to imply that you can’t, only that addressing the issue would give a fuller sense of your position.

    • Hello, Bonald,

      Thank you very much for the comment!

      You are right that we address different issues, but since I read from time to time articles about natural theology on the Orthosphere, I found a good occasion to address more issues than only or exactly what your article was about.

      Also, in the first paragraphs I talked about my personal issues with faith – that is, I never really found a rational view that would satisfy both my believing self and my doubting (or even atheist) self. It was an important moment in my life, because it ended up with me having even less doubts about the truth of Christianity than before I started to doubt. But it ended up with simply the decision to make the leap of faith, even though I accepted that evidence was leaning more towards belief in God than towards disbelief.

      Philosophical theism, though it may lead a person to believe that faith in God is not just for the unintelligent, it also seems like a double-edged sword to me. From classical theism to Scholasticism, we see that the thinkers who wrote were not in agreement on everything important.
      The Greek philosophers seemed to see the ultimate good as a bodiless existence, while the Church Fathers clearly saw salvation as communion with God – without the dissolution of the individual self. This is just one example.
      Of course, Greek philosophy is far truer and better than polytheism, and it is indeed much more useful for the Christian to pick the best from Plato and Aristotle, rather than to “imagin[e] God ‘in’ rather than ‘above’ the world”, as if He is one of the deities of old.
      But another example is Scholasticism as a whole – it showed that it is something radically different from theology per se. I think that theology/revelation are to be found in the unanimous and inspired doctrines of Scripture and the Church Fathers, and that it is imperative to read them (and to know the creeds) before reading philosophical theism. But Scholasticism was doing philosophy, and many opinions which contradicted inspired authorities appeared, due to the experimentations with philosophy. This is not to say that this wasn’t a great achievement – but that it is something to be considered secular, something without which the Christian can live.

      I would also congratulate you for the idea to write the article you wrote, because it is important to view Christianity not only as a monotheism, but also as a panentheism which believes in creation ex-nihilo. The very idea of calling God a being is playing with fire. Rather, Saint Augustine was right to call God Ipsum esse, Being itself, and even Scripture tells us that God presents Himself to Moses as “I AM THAT I AM”. By this, we understand that He is the only uncreated One, and that His incomprehensible way of being is the source of the existence of creation – creation exists only because God gives it energy, without Him creation ceases to exist. The Greek word υπάρχω, which means “to exist”, is used only for things in the cosmos, things of the same order of being as the cosmos… So, in this sense, God does not exist! He is both transcendent and immanent (immanent=creation’s existence depends in its every moment and particle on Him).

      I will consider writing on predestination, but it may help if an orthospherean writes an article that creates the irresistible temptation in me to respond🙂
      Just briefly, no arguments, I think that both Scripture and the early and the Cappadocian Fathers agree that God foreknows our thoughts, words and acts, but that He does not decide them, which I think was the position of the Gnostics. I also believe in Providence.

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